posted by April 16 at 13:57 PMon
The Race Beat, a book that purports to document the stories of the reporters who covered America’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, just won the Pulitzer Prize for history.
I reviewed this disappointing book for the Stranger’s book section a few weeks ago. Here’s what I wrote:
The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation
by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Add to the growing list of civil rights surveys The Race Beat, which purports to tell the stories of the newsmen who chronicled the historic drama during the 1950s and ’60s. Given the media’s role in the civil rights struggle (indeed, it’s no stretch to say the movement would never have succeeded if front pages and TV screens hadn’t given us Emmett Till’s mangled face and Bull Connor’s police dogs), an account of the press is overdue. Unfortunately, this book does a lackluster job documenting the stories behind the news stories. And so, while we get perfunctory details about reporters, it’s still the legendary events themselves—the showdown in Little Rock, the disappearance of three voting-rights workers in Mississippi, and the Billy clubs in Selma—that provide this book’s energy.
Interestingly, though, by casting reporters as the heroes, the authors do manage to tweak one traditional reading of the civil rights story. Birmingham ‘63, with fire hoses blasting black protesters, has long been the era’s defining moment—raw hatred exposed. But in this telling, a different defining moment emerges: the white riot that struck the University of Mississippi in 1962. Here, with besieged reporters on the scene being bullied out of upholding the First Amendment—one reporter is murdered—mob rule routs federal troops and Mississippi’s delinquent governor thumbs his nose at the federal courts. Racism’s larger threat to America, the unraveling of the Constitution, is laid bare.
Despite today’s news, I stand by it. Yes, the scene at Ol Miss is riveting. And one thing I didn’t have room for in the review was to gush over some of the original reporting that co-author Gene Roberts relayed about the scene when Stokely Carmichael busted out the term “Black Power” for the first time. Indeed, as a young reporter, Roberts was on the scene during the 1966 march where tensions between MLK and Carmichael provided one of the most significant turning points in modern American history.
However, this book did not deserve the Pulitzer in History. It’s basically this: Lackluster biographies of reporters glued on top of famous events from the civil rights stories. The original reporting about the battles between integrationist and segregationist editors in the Southern press was fine, but hardly revelatory. And the early chapter on the black press (the first group to cover the emerging civil rights movement) is much-better researched and documented in a 1999 documentary called The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords.
One big problem with the book is this: The authors chose the admittedly important 1944 study by famed Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, as the leaping off point, and central metaphor, for their story. The monumental study helped inform the Brown v. Board of Ed decision and was prescient—predicting that the media would (and must) play a pivotal role in the civil rights cause.
However, the authors are so enamored and hung up on the significance of Mydral’s prediction and his study, that they keep circling back to it in heavy handed, clunky, and sophomoric ways.
For an example of a Pulitzer-worthy history book that deals with the story behind the story (that is: a book about reporters), see Once Upon a Distant War by William Prochnau, a great book about the small press corps in Vietnam in the early days of U.S. involvement.